Let’s reflect on ineffably suave Canadian poet, novelist and singer Leonard Cohen - an artist synonymous with bohemian integrity and dignity – who died on 7 November 2016 aged 82. In particular, his relationship with inscrutable German chanteuseNico (1938 - 1988). They first met in 1966 in New York before Cohen was famous. Nico had just left The Velvet Underground and was striking out on her own. He called her "The most beautiful woman I'd ever seen." But then he also added, “Nico was very strange.”
As Cohen himself recalled: “When I first came to New York - I guess it was around 1966 - Nico was singing at The Dom, which was an Andy Warhol club at the time on 8th Street. I just stumbled in there one night and I didn't know any of these people. I saw this girl singing behind the bar. She was a sight to behold. I suppose the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen up to that moment. I just walked up and stood in front of her until people pushed me aside. I started writing songs for her then. She introduced me to Lou Reed at that time."
The song Cohen wrote for Nico was “Take This Longing.” Cohen claims she used serenade him with it, but Nico never recorded it or added it to her repertoire. Can you imagine: Nico singing the words of Leonard Cohen in that sibilant vampire priestess voice? (Instant goose bumps). He would later compose another melancholy ballad inspired by Nico, “Joan of Arc.” The lyrics certainly evoke Nico: “And something in me yearns to win / such a cold and lonesome heroine / And who are you? she sternly spoke …”
(The enigmatic Nico was one of the great rock muses. Musicians like Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Jackson Browne, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull and others would all go on to write songs about her).
In some accounts, Cohen and Nico were lovers. They certainly would have made for an exquisitely gloomy, romantically-despairing deep-voiced couple. It was not to be. In truth, she rebuffed his overtures. “Somehow I managed to meet her. And within five minutes of our conversation she told me to forget it, because she was only interested in young men. But she said, I'd love to be a friend of yours - and we became friends". Nico’s preferences for ‘em young and pretty are well documented: her boyfriend at the time was doe-eyed 18-year old musician Jackson Browne (who wrote the song “These Days” for her). A few years later she would turn her cougar-ish attention to nubile punk Iggy Pop. Bear in mind “older man” Cohen was 33 at the time – a grand total of four years Nico’s senior!
“I was madly in love with her. I was lighting candles and praying and performing incantations and wearing amulets, anything to have her fall in love with me, but she never did …,” Cohen would ruefully confess. “The years went by and we became quite tender with each other, but nothing romantic ever came of it.”
Cohen’s first album The Songs of Leonard Cohen (released December 1967) owed a significant debt to Nico’s solo debut Chelsea Girl (released October 1967). Think plaintive urban-beatnik folk music with coolly compassionate deep sonorous vocals, sparse musical accompaniment and downbeat glass-half-empty lyrics. The poet who’d not yet sung in public had learned, observed and absorbed while watching Nico perform at The Dom. Andy Warhol perceptively noted of Cohen’s album “it’s like Nico with whiskers.” In his 1980 memoir POPism: The Warhol Sixties, Warhol went further, recalling: “Leonard Cohen the Canadian poet was there (The Dom) quite a few nights in the audience down at the bar, just staring at her. Later on when he cut a record album I read a review that said his singing was like he was “dragging one note over the entire chromatic scale,” and I couldn’t help thinking of all those hours he’d spent listening to Nico …” . The Songs of Leonard Cohen created a sensation and launched him on his path. Although recognised as a classic today, Nico’s Chelsea Girl met with indifference at the time. It proved prophetic: cult diva Nico was destined to toil in obscurity during her lifetime.
For Cohen, his liaison with Nico would shape his musical direction and lead to an enduring (if sometimes stormy) friendship. (Nico had a penchant for violence in her volatile later years: during a misunderstanding, Cohen says Nico once “hauled off and hit me so hard it lifted me clean off the bed”). For Nico, the legacy would be more prosaic: in the sixties, Cohen turned her onto macrobiotic food, a diet she would stick with for the rest of her life. Over the years they would occasionally reunite when they both found themselves staying at The Chelsea Hotel in New York. "She's a great singer and a great songwriter,” Cohen said of Nico. “Completely disregarded from what I can see. I mean, I don't think she sells fifty records, but she's I think one of the really original talents in the whole racket.”